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Laurel Falls, N.C., 2012: That walnut dresser I bought my son sure brought a load of trouble. Not because one of the drawers kept sticking and the whole thing needed so much refinishing. No, I could handle that, what with being a woodworker most of my life. It was that diary hidden in a secret compartment for almost sixty year that turned everything upside down.
That diary was filled with awful stories of mistreatment and misfortune, stories that twisted up something inside of me. Especially because the teenage girl who wrote them stopped writing mid-sentence. Like someone grabbed her and took her away. Or killed her to keep what she’d written secret.
I just had to find out what happened to her. I knew what a lousy upbringing looked like, but even mine couldn’t compare with what she'd been through. I needed to know she'd made it through, like I had.
I was awful glad Della Kincaid could help. It'd been almost thirty year since she’d moved next door, buying Coburn’s General Store after Daddy drove it into the ground. She’d made a success of it, and hired a good assistant a while back, which meant she had time to join me on the search for the truth.
The timing, though, couldn’t have been worse: Christmastime and I had the boys that year. I was set on making it the best one yet, but with vile threats and truck chases and family feuds raining down on us, it was hard to squeeze in very much ho-ho-ho.
Turned out our investigation took us all through the mountains of North Carolina and up into Virginia to places I never wanted to see again. ~Abit Bradshaw
You'll enjoy this suspenseful story because who doesn't hope someone would care if you disappeared?
If you love Louise Penny, Richard Osman, and Fern Michaels, you're sure to enjoy the Appalachian Mountain Mysteries series.
Get it now—for the rich natural setting, colorful characters, and suspenseful investigations.
Unwrapped is the seventh book—a standalone novel—in the Appalachian Mountain Mysteries series by award-winning author Lynda McDaniel.
“Della,” I said in a half-whisper. “I’m reading a book about a girl who may have been killed.”
I’d asked Della Kincaid to step into the kitchen so we could talk private. She and her ex-husband/boyfriend, Alex Covington, had joined me and my two boys for supper, the same day as I’d uncovered the girl’s story.
“Well, if it’s a good mystery, let me read it next.”
“No, I mean it’s a diary, in the girl’s own hand.”
Della went quiet. I could tell she was turning over what I’d just said. “What did she write that makes you think she came to harm?”
“She told the saddest stories and then just stopped.”
“Teenagers and their diaries—they can start and stop on a whim.”
“Oh. Maybe you’d better start at the beginning.”
CHAPTER 1: ABIT
“Lost: One Chuh-hooa-hooa.”
It took us a minute, but then my boy, Conor, and I started laughing our heads off. We had to explain to Vern, my younger boy, that the radio announcer was talking about a Chihuahua dog. You couldn’t blame the announcer. Sure, those dogs are as common round here as varmints (and in my opinion, the little ankle-biters are varmints), but if you’d never seen that name spelled out, you’d likely pronounce it thataway.
Not long after, though, a wave of shame came over me for making fun like that—especially me, given the way I’d struggled early on at school. That was how I’d gotten my name—Daddy told everyone I was “a bit slow,” and well, Abit just stuck. Turned out he was wrong on so many counts, but still, I’d suffered under that curse and shouldn’t’ve made fun of someone else’s mistakes. Of course our laughter was miles away and that airwave had already drifted off like a finger of fog in the sun. Besides, you had to laugh at life whenever you could. Some sadness or other was just lying in wait, fixing to strike.
Our being together on a Saturday morning wasn’t all that common anymore. The boys were growing up and enjoyed time with their friends. But this day, we were all home, listening to the local station’s Swap Shop program. It was kinda old-timey, but I was glad they hadn’t done away with the show. A nice mix of local news, want ads, and for-sale items. I got up to pour more coffee when I heard Conor say, “Daddy, come quick.”
Jeb Samson (not the one we’d been laughing at; that was likely his boy) was carrying on about a walnut dresser for sale. Conor had been asking me to make him a dresser for the better part of a year, but like the cobbler’s son going barefoot, he was still using an old bookshelf for his clothes. I worked hard to keep food on the table with my furniture-making, and there always seemed to be some project I needed to finish for a paying customer. It had become a sore point between us.
I got back to the living room in time to hear, “Four drawers and in darned good condition. The owner said his mama got it when she set up her married home. I’m sad to report he’s clearing out the family homeplace after both his parents have passed.” Jeb paused a moment outta respect. “Now this fine dresser won’t be on the auction block for long. I know you can’t see it on the radio, but if you’ve come to trust me over the years, take my word for it. This is a find.”
When I looked round for my phone, Conor was holding his out, already dialed to the number Jeb kept barking at us. Conor had put the phone on speaker so he and Vern could listen to the bidding. I went up against two others, but I was determined to win. When the boys heard the announcer say Abit Bradshaw in Hanging Dog was the proud new owner, they both slapped me on the back and let out a little cheer.
Later after I’d dropped them off at their school where a soccer game had already started, I headed over to the radio station. Jeb’s truck was parked out front. Everybody knew it—the painting on the side said it all: “Samson’s Septic. We’re #1 in the #2 Business.” The Swap Shop job was just a sideline; nearabout everyone round here worked at least two jobs.
Jeb was waiting for me at the door with a big smile. I soon sensed it as part friendly and part con artist. I’d gotten so caught up in the auction that I hadn’t considered that “this fine dresser” might not be so fine after all. I looked down where Jeb had set it on the driveway and saw plenty of hours of refinishing ahead. I didn’t say anything when I paid up, but I could tell Jeb was mighty pleased with himself—and the cut he’d take.
Didn’t matter. Conor was happy, for a change. I planned to set to work on it as soon as I got home. I wanted to show both boys how much they meant to me, even if this time it was for Conor. Not that Vern was the kinda boy who needed everything to be tit for tat. He knew he got fair and square. Besides, envy wasn’t in his makeup. He’d had a rough upbringing before he came to live with us, and I reckoned he’d never forgotten how much his luck had changed.
I knew it wasn’t really the dresser that had Conor acting out. Both the boys were kinda shook up over the fact that their mother and my ex-wife, Fiona, had remarried. Sure, the fellow sounded nice enough, but still, I could tell they were uneasy with yet another change in their young lives. And it’d torn clear through me when I’d overheard Vern saying to Conor how that meant we’d never get back together again. Of course I already knew that, but young’uns’ hearts are still open to hope.
I pulled up next to my woodworking shop and unloaded the dresser under a maple tree where I liked to work, what with shade in the summer and full sun come winter. The weather had already begun its slide into winter, green leaves leaning into gold and red, some already turning brown. But today carried a warmth broken only by the occasional soft breeze. As I scrubbed off layers of dirt from the dresser, a phoebe told me its name over and over, and a pair of purple martins swooped round the gourds I’d hung for them in nearby trees. They’d be leaving soon for warmer climes, so I took a moment to enjoy their cavorting with the drifting leaves.
I turned back to my work without regret. I liked refinishing almost as much as making something new. The old furniture had a story to tell about the people who’d owned it. Too much polish said one thing. Messages carved in the wood told anothern. Tobacco and wood smoke smothered fine wood, leaving it dried out and neglected, like too many lives.
This piece, though, was made from a rich walnut that shone through as I gave it a good cleaning. In the corner of my eye, I could see a squirrel kinda tiptoe my way. Maybe the smell of fresh walnut wood made him think there were nuts nearby. He’d been poking round for a couple year now, though I hadn’t seen him lately, stirring worries he’d made his way into someone’s Brunswick stew. I’d named him Sparky because of a burned area, hairless and scorched, on his back, likely from some kinda fire, maybe electrical. He sat on his hind legs and chattered at me, not happy to discover I had nothing close at hand for him to eat. “Go over to the birdfeeder, Sparky, and gorge yourself like you usually do,” I scolded right back.
“Talking to yourself now, are you?” Matthew said, a big grin on his face.
I had one too when I answered. “Not just now. For a long time. It’s the only way I can say something without irritating someone, though sometimes I even annoy myself.”
Matthew was neighbor and friend, more like brother. Last year he’d moved onto some land I’d sold him, where he built a striking underground house. I’d thought he was growing to love it here following a lifetime in Asheville with all its noise and nonsense, but after a time, oncet his home project was done, he grew restless. He missed teaching, he told me one night as we sat drinking beer by the fire.
I had to hand it to him. This area wasn’t known for good jobs, but he’d found himself a teaching position just south of Boone. Not at my old school, The Hickson School of American Studies (aka The Hicks), but some fancy one for rich kids. He was used to dealing with that kinda situation and seemed happy there. But with a thirty-minute commute on good days (way longer during leaf-peeping season), we didn’t see enough of each other.
Matthew had been my woodworking assistant while he recovered from an injury, so he spotted the gently figured grain and quality workmanship that became obvious the more I rescued the dresser from neglect. All I could figure was the previous owner had stored it on a porch or in a barn oncet she no longer had a place for it in her home.
“Those are some fine joints,” he said, pouring coffee from the electric percolator I’d recently bought for the shop. “And I like your new coffeepot. This is a good addition.”
I had to laugh. Back when we’d worked together, we’d both taken plenty of breaks to go to the house for coffee. More to get a little fresh air and some alone time (close quarters in my shop) than to drink more caffeine, which only gave us the jitters. Not smart round power tools.
“In spite of some mistreatment, that dresser looks like something of value,” he added.
I took out the top drawer to study the dovetail joints closer. Almost as good as those made by Shiloh, born Bob Greene, who’d worked with me before Matthew. When Matthew left to teach again, I hired a guy named Jason—but I had to let him go last month. He turned the air blue with all his swearing. Thing was, the fellow was as nice and friendly as you please, but when he was working, he’d start cussing and carrying on. At first I thought he’d hurt himself, and I’d drop what I was doing to tend to him. He’d act surprised, like he was wondering what was wrong with me. He musta gone into some kinda trance while he worked and became a different person. It was sorta funny at first, such a mild-mannered person acting thataway, but after a while, it wore on me. So it had been just me for a coupla months, which was why I was so behind with my orders.
“Yep, I think this will polish up real smart. Conor should be pleased.”
“Is he getting any better?”
Matthew knew about Conor being all angry about his mother, his father, life in general. A teenager. “A little,” I said after a lengthy pause. “We’re all working through some stuff right now.”
He raised his eyebrows, but then looked at his watch. “Sorry, but I need to get a move on.”
He was kinda cagey thataway. I think he might’ve had a date. Some folks did stuff like that on a Saturday night. I sighed, thinking how mine had turned so quiet—unless our bluegrass band, the Rollin’ Ramblers, had a gig. Then Annie Totherow came to mind. I’d known her for a long time—all but five year of my life. Her daddy was a beekeeper, and when I was still a boy, I helped Della pick up cases of his famed sourwood honey for Coburn’s General Store. I still remember visiting Annie’s house and passing by her room, all pink and pretty. Smelling nice too.
I turned back to the dresser and got two more drawers out, but I had to fight with the middle one. It seemed caught on the frame and came out only halfway. I pulled hard, but that dang thing wouldn’t budge. I figured the bottom had drooped, though when I looked inside the drawer, the part I could see looked level with the sides. Same thing when I turned it over.
Looking back, I wondered how different life would’ve been if I’d left that drawer alone. It, or rather what was inside, turned everything upside down.
Chapter 2: Abit
Oh no! I’d lost all track of time. The boys would be standing alone outside the school if I didn’t get over there now.
I left the dresser on my workbench and called for Mollie. She usually slept in her bed in the woodshop while I was working, but something had made her stir and go searching for goodness knows what. Most of the time it was nothing; just an odd sound or bird caw. One time it was Matthew nearabout dead in the creek, but I doubted anything that serious was going on this day.
Soon enough, she came running, her wiry coat pressed back by the wind, and hopped in through the truck’s passenger door I’d opened for her. Not far behind came Red, Matthew’s Irish setter. With Matthew gone so much, Red was like our second dog, something that was fine with Mollie. Not so much with me since Mollie spent less time with me now. But I knew that was how it should be, her having fun with her own kind. I motioned for him to run on; we didn’t have room in the truck for that big galoot.
All the way home, the boys chattered on about this and that. Now that they were getting bigger, Mollie had to squeeze into the footwell, but didn’t seem to mind. (I never did hold with putting dogs in the open bed of a pickup.) I was too busy worrying about that ornery drawer to pay much heed to what the boys were saying.
“Daddy, you’re not listening.”
“I’m sorry, Vern. What did you say?”
“I said Annie Totherow was at the soccer match.”
“Yeah, I think one of her sister’s kids or grandkids plays ball.”
“She wasn’t with a kid. She was with a man.”
His words flew at me, hot and sharp like a slap. Annie again, filling my head with troubled thoughts.
Back home, I got the boys settled in with an afternoon snack and headed for my shop. As I was driving, I’d seen in my mind’s eye a little ribbon barely sticking up inside that difficult drawer. I’d missed it earlier that morning, and I kinda chuckled when, sure enough, the thinnest piece of ribbon lay along the inside edge of the drawer. I pulled on it and up came the so-called bottom, revealing a secret compartment. It was less than a coupla inches deep, so the naked eye didn’t really notice the drawer was more shallow than the rest. And that ribbon? Probably something a mama or daddy would dismiss as something from a girl’s nighty or underwears.
Inside the compartment lay an old book with DIARY embossed on the leather cover, the gold rubbed off long ago, the leather binding chewed by critters. I leafed through it careful-like, not wanting to damage the brittle pages. I found entries on the first thirty or so pages, then nothing.
I needed to finish restoring the dresser (I’d promised Conor I’d get to it right away), but truth be known, I really wanted to sneak off and read that diary. I saw some writing on the first page that said it had been a Christmas gift in 1947 to a Daisy Dawson, age 12 year old.
On the next page, the words held so much promise, my chest ached.
I love you, new diary! Thank you, Cousin Evie, for the perfect Christmas present. I always love the cards and gifts you send. I wish we saw more of you!
Then she added:
I can’t wait to write more about all the wonderful things the next year holds.
A cold finger ran up my back. To be honest, I was eat up with superstition, and I’d lived long enough to know there was good reason for that. Soon as you say something is wonderful or perfect or happy, something comes along to spoil it. I’d seen it happen time and again.
I smiled at the loopy handwriting and the innocence of her words. I skimmed through the first ten or so entries, and they were along the same lines. Until.
He is already gone when I get ready for school. Breakfast is cold cereal, but it tastes good by the fire. At school I eat the sandwich Mama packed, swapping halves with my best friend, Amy. Then we spend time in the library, where I check out a book about wildflowers. Mama says she knows more than that book could ever tell me, and I figure she’s right. What I can’t tell her is it’s easier to look in a book than to listen to all her stories about how hard she’s had it. I know that’s probably true, but get in line! I’m too tired to write more. I didn’t sleep well last night. Good night, dolly on the windowsill. Good night, Amy. Good night, dear sister.
I put the book down. I had to get back to the dresser, work I couldn’t rush. I’d just end up having to redo corners not cleaned right or sand off sloppy coats of finish. By the time I’d finally gotten the dresser fixed up good enough to put on the first coat of linseed oil, the sun had slipped low behind the mountains, swallows sweeping away the remains of the day. I headed to the house to make supper for me and the boys. I took the diary with me.
That evening, oncet we’d all settled down for the night, I got in bed, pulled up the quilt before Mollie hogged it, and looked forward to reading Daisy’s diary. But like the page I’d read earlier, the stories took a troubling turn.
Last night no one came into my room, leaving me to sleep in peace. Today is Saturday, and by the time I wake up, everyone is gone. I take Winnifur for a walk in the woods. That’s what I call our little feist because her name is Winnie, and she’s got such long, beautiful fur. We walk toward my favorite place, near a small waterfall. I’m humming a tune I love—“Will the Circle be Unbroken”—when he steps out from behind a tree. He knew this was the trail we’d take. Once he's finally gone, I wash my face and hands and legs in the cool water.
After reading a few more entries about how scared she was of him (as though she didn’t dare write Daddy) and crying because she was hurting, I felt that ache in my chest come back, snaking its way up my throat and stealing my breath. It felt like this book would strangle me if I read one more word. I set the diary down and cut the light.
I needed sleep, but I kept imagining a little girl writing those words. Maybe she’d had a flashlight under the covers, or if she were really brave, she’d sit upright in bed, declaring with her pen that this was what happened and it weren’t right. Something about her strength, imagined or real, soothed me. I finally slept.
The next day, I set the dresser outside again to put on another coat of linseed oil. I looked round for Sparky or Phoebe, but they’d taken shelter against the gusty wind and the falling temperatures. I quickly realized I’d need to work inside unless I wanted dust and twigs embedded in the finish. I dreaded the smell of the linseed oil; I already felt a bit off thanks to that diary. Those stories had disturbed my sleep, leaving me unsettled and more than a little queasy.
It reminded me of those times after Fiona left when I could barely come out to the shop. I hadn’t felt like doing any woodworking, but I’d needed something to do with my hands. I turned to carving; the familiar, repetitive motion always calmed me. But back then I wasn’t of a mind to whittle a pretty little deer or curled sleeping cat. I needed my hands to fashion something of substance. That was when I got the crazy idea to carve a sawed-off shotgun. Just what I needed to draw out the hard feelings wrapped tight round my heart.
I’d rummaged in my scrap pile ‘til I found some good-size maple and walnut scraps. I drew up my plans and started to whittle. It took me a few weeks carving, then sanding and finishing ‘til it shined. I had to chuckle when I held it. Even to me it looked like the real thing. That had been a coupla year ago, but I still kept it by the front door, just in case.
As I moved the dresser back inside, I sensed something coming up behind me. My nerves raw from that diary and thoughts of shotguns, I grabbed a scrap of rough lumber and turned, ready to strike.
Just a scrawny ol’ cat sniffing out something to eat. Other than being too thin, he was a good-looking black cat with a white chest and white socks. While he rubbed round my legs, I thought about how we hadn’t had a barn cat since Miss Peepers disappeared. If you’ve got a barn, you need one, especially if you have anything valuable stored inside. And I did. But things had gotten so crazy round the time Miss Peepers went missing that I'd forgotten to find anothern. I hated to think what the rats and mice might have gotten up to left on their own.
As I reached down to pet the cat, my phone rang and startled him. He scurried deeper into the barn.
“Have you finished that diary yet?” Della asked the minute I answered. She had that tone she gets—like a foot tapping, impatient. “I’m dying to read it.”
I sighed. “No, I can’t read much at a time. Last evening, I read a few entries but had to close it.”
“No, just the opposite. That young girl I told you about had a daddy meaner than mine—by a long shot. And later when I turned out the light, those stories gave me dreams from the Devil.”
“Oh, now you’ve made me even more eager to read it.”
If I hadn’t known Della for almost thirty year, I’d’ve thought she were a mean person, keen to read the kinda stuff I’d just described. But she’d been a better friend than anyone could hope to have. No telling how I’d’ve turned out if she hadn’t moved next door to my family and taken over Coburn’s General Store after Daddy had driven it into the ground.
From what I knew about her past, Della couldn’t resist a story like this, good or evil. Back when she lived in Washington, D.C., she’d worked as a reporter and covered a lot of terrible things. So much so her fellow reporters called her “Ghoulfriend.” I couldn’t figure how she’d turned out so nice, what with all that graft and gore she’d had to write about. But maybe, by comparison, that taught her how precious the good in life was.
“You’re just going to have to hold your horses, Della. I found this diary, and I’m gonna read through it first.”
“Okay, but hurry up.” She hung up without saying goodbye.
Chapter 3: Della
Abit’s Swap-Shop discovery stirred something inside me that had lain fallow for too long. I’d been missing it, but until now, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Instead, I’d been wallowing in the doldrums.
I knew some of those feelings came from losing my best friend, Cleva Hall. About six months ago, she went to bed one night and didn’t wake up. Surely the best way to go. And she’d had a good life—97 years old. Not long after, two of my favorite customers, Myrtle and Ross Ledford, died within two months of each other. Surprisingly Myrtle went first. Not a surprise that Ross soon followed. Myrtle was so full of life, I’d forgotten she was old—95. Or was it 96?
More than one person said I’d been cranky, and I couldn’t argue with that. But when I’d heard about the diary, this feeling came over me—a frisson I called it back when I still had the fire in me—that I used to get when I’d covered stories as a freelance writer in D.C. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that diary. It sounded like just the ticket to wake up the old me, the reporter who used to find stories other people overlooked (and afterwards sometimes wished I’d overlooked).
Abit was busy refinishing the dresser for Conor, so why, I wondered, couldn’t I read the diary while he worked? When I pushed him a little, he’d asked what the rush was. Well, he wasn’t in the throes of a creative dry spell. I’d been ordering bread and beans, cheese and pickles at Coburn’s General Store for twenty-eight years, and though I hated to admit it, I’d grown weary of it.
A couple of years ago, I’d turned much of the store’s day-to-day operations over to Annie Tutherow. Maybe that had been a mistake. Not in choosing Annie; she was the best sidekick I’d ever had. But in not filling my extra time with more creative ventures. I still did most of the ordering, but I could do that with my eyes closed. Otherwise, I read, did a little gardening, and took my dog, Rascal, on walks in the woods. Not much else to do here in Laurel Falls. That was all nice, but not as the main event. Of course I loved the newfound time with Alex, though he was often over in Chapel Hill for meetings with the magazine he still worked for parttime. And I hadn’t had a caper with Abit in a couple of years. The last one—Matthew Ruisseau—felt like forever ago.
I’d have to keep after Abit. I had a strong feeling about that diary.
Meet Abit Bradshaw and Della Kincaid from my Appalachian Mountain Mysteries series. Find out how Abit lost all hope of having a meaningful life and why Della had to leave Washington, D.C.
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